8th Feb 2021 | Open Movie | Sprite Fright
Sprite Fright is Blender's new Open Movie, now in development. You can follow progress and updates on the Cloud. In this post we talk to Sprite Fright’s co-director, Hjalti Hjalmarsson, about his role at Blender Studio, the films that informed Sprite Fright’s ‘80s aesthetic, and a childhood obsession. For more Hjalti, check out his contribution to this ultra-detailed course on character animation.
Hjalti’s a Renaissance Man -- albeit from 21st Century Iceland, not 15th Century Italy. He started in 3D as a teen, which led to studies in computer science, graphic design, and later animation. Among Hjalti's work on Open Movies is a turn as co-director on Agent 327: Operation Barbershop, as well as animation director for Spring.
For Sprite Fright, Hjalti turns his many talents to various stages of the pipeline. “I’m largely about establishing the film’s rhythm. But I also do layout, rigging, whatever is needed." He laughs. "We’re a very small studio, so if something is needed and I can do it, then I take one for the team. For example, I’m also the film’s editor.”
As Sprite Fright is a horror-comedy set in the '80s, the team soaked themselves in movies from that period. Hjalti says, “The broadest emphasis was on creating a nostalgic sense of '80s horror. We watched Amercian Werewolf In London and Gremlins."
"It was strange to see how these films shifted gear a lot, tonally, by our standards. Sometimes the violence in Gremlins is really nasty, and sometimes it just happens off-screen.” Hjalti suspects that this is partly due to the makers having to appease censors -- happily, not an issue for Sprite Fright. But while they could go all in on gore, Hjalti and the Sprite Fright team will be restraining themselves. Somewhat. “It’s definitely for older teenagers. We’re taking this family-friendly lore of fairytale settings and woodland creatures, and doing something darker with it.”
Sprite Fright's other references stem from closer to our time, particularly self-aware modern genre films. “Shaun of the Dead creates a good balance between horror and comedy. And we really liked Cabin in the Woods, which takes these tropes of the five archetypes journeying into the woods, like the cheerleader and the jester and so on, and plays with those dynamics.”
Another influence eschewed horror altogether. “We watched Wes Anderson’s film Isle of Dogs. It takes place in Japan, but obviously not a historically accurate depiction of Japan. It’s more Japan as seen from the viewpoint of an exchange student.” While there’s nothing remotely Wes Anderson-like about Sprite Fright, the master of symmetry and stilted dialogue did inform the production’s sense of the hyper-real. Like Isle of Dogs, Sprite Fright's world is what Hjalti describes as a “heightened, slightly fantastical version” of our own.
Still, the '80s remain Sprite Fright's touchstone. “In terms of the cinematography we have right now, even in this rough sketchy form, we’re more in this kind of Speilberg-esque '80s thing, but more snappy when it comes to the camera moves.” The era comes with an unexpected technical challenge for Blender’s animators: “In the '80s, there was a lot of accessorizing. If you have an '80s girl with all these bangles, big earrings and big hair -- all these accessories dangling and wiggling -- how does that all animate when that character is running through the woods?”
Hjalti’s enthusiasm for filmmaking, and particularly animation, is life-long. “I fell in love with cartoons when I was a kid. I’d watch them for an awkwardly long time. As a teenager too. When the other boys were checking out girls, I’m still watching cartoons meant for ten year olds.”
So perhaps it’s unsurprising that this animation obsessed kid grew up to be Sprite Fright’s co-director … slash editor ... slash rigger ... slash layout designer ... slash etcetera.
For a deep dive on Sprite Fright’s visual sensibilities, have a look at this post with 3D Artist Julien Kaspar, or Art Director Andy Goralcyzk’s explanation of a term invented specifically for this movie: “Chunkification.”
Want details on Sprite Fright director Matthew Luhn? See this post: part one of a two part bio. And check out the rest of Sprite Fright’s team here. We’ll be covering their roles and sharing tips in future posts.